PITTSBURGH — Playing nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers is pretty simple according to veteran Casey Hampton. Push the guy in front of you left. Push him right. Push him backward.
The Steelers think Alameda Ta’amu can do all three.
Pittsburgh selected the massive defensive tackle in the fourth round of the NFL Draft on Saturday, hoping the 6-foot-3, 348-pound Ta’amu can develop into a player who will eventually replace Hampton.
The Steelers moved up 10 spots to grab Ta’amu, exchanging fourth-round picks with the Washington Redskins while also giving the Redskins a sixth-round choice.
“You want to make sure this guy can play the double team,” defensive line coach John Mitchell said. “If he can’t do that, he’ll have a tough time playing for us and he did that very well at the University of Washington.”
Ta’amu gives Pittsburgh needed depth at the position that anchors its 3-4 defense. Longtime backup Chris Hoke retired in January and Hampton is recovering from offseason knee surgery, leaving third-year man Steve McLendon as the most experienced healthy nose tackle on the roster.
Mitchell declined to speculate on Hampton’s status and said it’s too early to “discard” McLendon.
Maybe, but McLendon is a scant 280 pounds. Ta’amu weighed as much as 390 pounds at Washington though Mitchell is not concerned about Ta’amu’s size being a problem once he gets to minicamp.
“Everybody wants big guys,” Mitchell said. “We do a lot of with our nose tackle. When this kid comes in here, we’re going to see where he is and (conditioning coordinator) Garrett (Giemont) is going to determine where (Ta’Amu) needs to play at.”
Ta’amu had 30 tackles and four sacks during his senior year with the Huskies and was an honorable mention All Pac-12 selection. He played extensively against Stanford guard David DeCastro, whom the Steelers chose in the first round. Ta’amu had high praise for his former rival turned teammate.
“When you go against DeCastro, you can feel his presence,” Ta’amu said. “There’s not a lot of guards that can block down on a nose tackle and you can feel him. The thing about DeCastro is he’s explosive, from play one all the way to the last play. There’s not a lot of guards that can stay the same like that.”
The Steelers are in no hurry to bring Ta’amu along, though he believes he can be a three-down player. When asked about his pass rush skills, Ta’amu just laughed.
“My pass rush is amazing,” he said.
Pittsburgh added its first skill position player in the fifth round, selecting Florida running back Chris Rainey with the 159th overall pick.
Rainey’s versatility should fit in well with the Steelers, who will likely use him extensively on special teams. He set a Southeastern Conference record with six blocked punts in his career, though he’ll probably return kicks in Pittsburgh.
“I think he’s a very versatile player that is very fast and explosive,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He can run it, he can return it. That’s a commodity.”
One the Steelers could use. Antonio Brown made the Pro Bowl as a return man last season, but will be elevated to a starting wide receiver following the retirement of Hines Ward.
Rainey, whose older brother Rod Smart played five seasons in the NFL with the Eagles and Panthers, knows his speed is his greatest asset. He promptly called himself the fastest player on a roster that includes speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Though he lined up at slot receiver at Florida, Rainey considers himself a running back. He should get a chance to show what he can do during training camp.
Starter Rashard Mendenhall is recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee suffered in the regular season finale against Cleveland. Backup Isaac Redman played well in a loss to Denver in the Wild Card round and Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay and Barron Batch will also be in camp.
None, however, have Rainey’s speed and Haley likened him to Kansas City’s Dexter McCluster, whom Haley coached with the Chiefs.
“He’s a situational player when it comes to offense,” Haley said. “It might be third down, it might be by package. You see a little bit of everything.”
Rainey called Pittsburgh the “perfect” spot for him, noting the team’s status as a Super Bowl contender and his close relationship with Steelers offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, former teammates at Florida.
Rainey’s tenure with the Gators was marred by his arrest in 2010 on an aggravated stalking charge for allegedly sending a threatening text to a former girlfriend. He spent a night in jail and was kicked off the team the next day before being reinstated. The incident likely changed his life for the better.
“I became a man. I matured,” Rainey said. “I learned a lesson not to do that ever again … this stuff happens for a reason.”